Just under a month ago I gained access to the closed beta for MTG Arena. By complete coincidence that was three days before Wizards lowered the NDA on their new platform. Now that I’ve had time to adjust and put in a significant amount of playtime, I wanted to share some of my experiences and thoughts. And I wanted to do it before the Dominaria patch WotC announced last week goes live.

You start the game with ten preconstructed decks, one for each two-color pair. In terms of power level these decks are roughly equivalent to the Planeswalker deck series. They all have a solid theme and a few powerful rares, but there are questionable card choices and very few playsets. These decks are very much designed to be upgradeable and customizable in a number of different directions, and they do a good job of providing a starting point that has noticeable room for improvement without being frustrating to play with.

I won’t dive too far into the specifics of Arena’s card collection economy—read Rich’s helpful piece on that topic. What I will say is that overall the game gives you access to cards at a very specific and deliberate rate. While using real money to buy packs isn’t an option during the beta—we can only speculate on what the rates will be once it is—the rate at which you currently acquire cards (and which a free-to-play user would presumably acquire them after release) is annoyingly slow without making that path impossible.

For obvious reasons the game encourages you to spend money—WotC has to turn a profit on this game after all. But if you carefully plan out what you want to make, it isn’t hard to acquire a respectable deck rather quickly. After playing with the preconstructed decks for a week, I decided to build a mono-red aggro deck as my primary way of racking up wins and acquiring gold and cards. Unfortunately I don’t have a record of what my starting list was, but after three weeks of playing I’ve gotten to the following:

Arena Mono Red

Creatures (27)
Fanatical Firebrand
Soul-Scar Mage
Bloodrage Brawler
Earthshaker Khenra
Ahn-Crop Crasher
Captain Lannery Storm
Hazoret The Fervent

Spells (11)
Magma Spray
Lightning Strike
Lands (22)
14 Mountain
Ramunap Ruins
Sunscorched Desert

It’s far from finished, but this deck has been both powerful and fun. Importantly, out of the cards listed here only fifteen or so came from packs or the starter decks. The rest were all wildcards that I converted. And that’s important, because it means that wildcards are showing up in packs frequently enough that I was able to build a high-level deck in a matter of weeks without grinding a ridiculous amount. I’ve mostly been playing enough to complete the daily quests, about an hour a day on average. That’s not a ton of work to put in for a deck, especially compared to getting a list together in paper.

Perhaps my favorite improvement over MTGO is how Arena handles time management. While MTGO allots a specific amount of time to a player in each match, Arena tracks time in each turn. If you waste too much time an hourglass appears over your avatar, and if it runs out the computer passes through the rest of your turn without taking action. I’ll be the first to admit that the exact times could stand to be adjusted, but for me this is a vast improvement over the blunt method of handing a match loss to anyone who takes more than twenty five minutes in a game.

The interface is difficult to evaluate. The game looks fantastic, and it’s much more player friendly than MTGO. That being said, there are aspects of Magic that simply don’t translate cleanly to a digital format. Things that are easy in paper get complicated pretty quickly online, while things that make paper games a nightmare are easily tracked by computers. Something as simple as holding up a combat trick can force you to manually click through every phase of the turn, while shuffling you deck happens automatically. I’ll admit that my decision to work on an aggro deck was influenced by how much of a pain holding up instant-speed effects is to start off with.

Overall I would say that the game plays very smoothly with the card pool and game mode currently available.  When you’re essentially smashing souped-up precon decks against each other, things hold up wonderfully. I am worried about how Arena will cope as the cardpool slowly expands and card interactions get more complicated. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m worried about how it will handle multiplayer and especially Brawl, once that becomes an available mode. For now though, I have no complaints.

That brings me to the modes currently available. Or more precisely, the mode. Right now the only way to play is one-on-one “competitive” games. And I do mean games, not matches. Arena currently doesn’t let you play a full best of three match, which is why I didn’t list a sideboard for my Mono-red deck earlier. This mode is actually a lot more fun that it sounds, mainly because it’s fast. You can blitz through a lot of games quickly, which speeds up the process of acquiring cards and prevents control mirrors from dragging on for too long.

The process of keeping people with vastly different power levels of decks apart mostly falls to the rankings ladder, which to the best of my knowledge hasn’t been fully explained anywhere. The main problem with this practice is that it heavily disincentivizes players from using anything except their strongest deck, as the system ranks you primarily against people who are at roughly that level.

To be clear, this isn’t an issue right now. The game is in beta and game modes have to be one of the last things on the programmer’s minds. What the game does need at some point is a mode that isn’t tied to a ranking ladder. A system like that can work in a game like Overwatch, where everything is down to a player’s skill and knowledge. But Magic also has to account for a deck’s power, and that can fluctuate wildly from game to game.

I thought about ending with what I’d want to make as an ideal version of my Red Aggro list, but with the Dominaria reset coming soon that doesn’t seem too relevant. So instead I’m looking at what I want to build next.

As much fun as smashing face with Hazoret has been, I want to branch out a little. A lot of the historic-matters cards from Dominaria have caught my eye, and I’d like to see how far I can push Jhoira, Weatherlight Captain as a card advantage engine for an artifact-based control deck. There probably isn’t enough removal, but with a playset of Icy Manipulators, Mirage Mirrors and Gleaming Barriers it just might work.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami.

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